Updated: Aug 22
A reread. 4.5 Stars! Griet had not been told that she is to become the painter Vermeer’s maid, her mother only revealing the job to her after the Vermeer’s had already been, inspected Griet, and left. Griet has no say in the matter. Her father was a tile painter before a tragic accident, in which a kiln explosion claimed his eyes and trade. The family who were already struggling, treading water, now find themselves slowly slipping beneath the surface. Her father explains to Griet that she is to be a maid for the famous painter Vermeer. Cleaning his studio will be one of her main tasks. It is 1664, in the city of Delft, Holland. Griet has been brought up a protestant but the Vermeer’s are catholic and Griet wonders how life will change and what differences she will find in a Catholic household. The first time she sees the painting that Vermeer is currently working on, she is struck with awe. She has never seen anything like it in her life before. On the Sunday that she has free and returns to spend with her family she describes the painting for her father. These Sunday visits are soon taken from Griet as the area in which her family live is quarantined with word spreading that the plague has surfaced in the vicinity. She finds out from Pieter, the son of the butcher where she purchases the meat, that her parents are well but that her sister Agnes has taken ill. Pieter is a cheerful gregarious chap and falls for Griet. He does not hide his feelings and makes his intentions known to Griet. Griet tells him that she is only seventeen and has no feelings for him, however this does not dissuade Pieter. Griet’s parents decide, with Pieter being the son of a butcher, that he is a good match for Griet and invite him for dinner. Griet feels that she is helping the family by playing her role in securing their future, and a marriage could lead them out of penury. However, she is doing this out of family duty and harbours no feelings for Pieter other than friendship. One day Pieter tells Griet that Vermeer had a child with one of the maids in his painting. Alarmingly she asks him what happened to the maid. He answers her with, “What happens to girls like that?”. Before the quarantine is lifted Griet receives the terrible news that her sister has passed. Griet is grief-stricken. At first Griet barely sees Vermeer. He is nearly always locked away in his studio studiously painting. One morning the baker’s daughter is ill and Vermeer asks Griet to stand in for her in a painting he is working on. From this day on, Griet and Vermeer grow closer. Vermeer starts showing Griet how a painting is created from scratch. Griet, is utterly entranced. She has never seen a painting being painted, never met a master painter before. Her feelings start to grow stronger for Vermeer with each passing day. Griet shows an unusual talent for colour and arrangement and Vermeer is quietly surprised and happy. Vermeer then teaches her how to mix paints but as she grows closer to Vermeer, she becomes aware that all this can be taken away from her in an instant. Vermeer’s wife knows nothing of this work Griet is doing for him. Griet becomes used to this new way of life and it is not until Maertge, the eldest daughter, tells her that she is going to be moved from the attic, where she mixes the paints, back to the cellar, that she realises what she will be missing. “I slowed my pace. Years of hauling water, wringing out clothes, scrubbing floors, emptying chamberpots, with no chance of beauty or colour or light in my life, stretched before me like a landscape of flat land, where a long way off the sea is visible but can never be reached. If I could not work with the colours, if I could not be near him, I did not know how I could continue to work in that house”. While Griet has been working at the Vermeer’s household she has picked up an unwarranted admirer. A powerful, and rich admirer. He is Vermeer’s patron van Ruijven and he has his eyes set on Griet. Although Vermeer is a famous painter, the household is in debt. Vermeer’s extreme slowness in painting leaves him with only a few paintings to sell each year. So, when his patron van Ruijven requests that he paint Griet, Vermeer has little choice but to comply. Griet is trapped, she does not want to sit for the painting, but Pieter sums up her situation in a sentence, “But you have little power of what happens to you”. The painting of Griet has an almost pornographic taboo feel to it. It feels as if lines have been crossed and that boundaries have been broken. There is no illusion that Griet thinks she is in love with Vermeer. Griet is seventeen and naïve, apart from Pieter she has never been courted by a man and is blithely unaware of her beauty. When Vermeer sees Griet with her hair down, freed from the cap that has always remained on her head. He realises that he may be falling in love himself. There is always a sexual tension, almost like a charge of electricity, between the two. But will this tension result in action? And if the two do engage in a clandestine affair whare does that leave Griet? What hope is there for her? She is placed in an impossible situation with no positive outcome in sight. This novel makes the reader think about the relationship between master and servant. How Griet, only seventeen and very naïve, is caught up in the grey area that exists between the two roles. She sways back and forth like a ship in a storm, one minute reminded of her humble life while working on the household tasks, then a completely different world, mixing colours and helping Vermeer with his painting. Griet’s place in the Vermeer household is never secure, she seems to be always teetering of the verge of being thrown out with Vermeer himself the only tether keeping her safe. How is Griet going to get herself out of this situation, and is she more than just the naïve country maid that everybody thinks she is? This was a reread for me and it has lost nothing in the years since I read it. Not much is known about Vermeer during these years, so Chevalier had a great deal of license to play around with, and she has done a wonderful job, creating a believable and enjoyable novel. 4.5 Stars.
Born: 19 October 1962 in Washington, DC. Youngest of 3 children. Father was a photographer for The Washington Post. Childhood: Nerdy. Spent a lot of time lying on my bed reading. Favorite authors back then: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander. Book I would have taken to a desert island: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Education: BA in English, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1984. No one was surprised that I went there; I was made for such a progressive, liberal place. MA in creative writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, 1994. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not you can be taught to write. Why doesn’t anyone ask that of professional singers, painters, dancers? That year forced me to write all the time and take it seriously. Geography: Moved to London after graduating from Oberlin in 1984. I had studied for a semester in London and thought it was a great place, so came over for fun, expecting to go back to the US after 6 months to get serious. I’m still in London, and still not entirely serious. Even have dual citizenship – though I keep the American accent intact. Family: 1 English husband + 1 English son + 1 tortoiseshell cat. Career: Before writing, was a reference book editor, working on encyclopedias about writers. (Yup, still nerdy.) Learned how to research and how to make sentences better. Eventually I wanted to fix my own sentences rather than others’, so I quit and did the MA. Writing: Talked a lot about becoming a writer as a kid, but actual pen to paper contact was minimal. Started writing short stories in my 20s, then began first novel, The Virgin Blue, during the MA year. With Girl With a Pearl Earring (written in 1998), I became a full-time writer, and have since juggled it with motherhood
Wonderful interview with Tracy Chevalier here - http://www.essentialvermeer.com/interviews_newsletter/chevalier_interview.html